Detroit Tigers trade deadline: How much is Justin Verlander really worth?
Justin Verlander's name among Tigers trade rumors
DETROIT – Over the past decade, Tigers fans have spent almost every MLB trade deadline wondering which pieces Dave Dombrowski would acquire to put the team over the top heading into the postseason.
This July is the exact opposite.
With the exceptions of 2008 and 2015, the team has always been in contention and finished with an average of more than 89 wins per year. Even during those two outlier seasons, the Tigers made minor adjustments and jumped back into the race the following year.
Now Al Avila is staring into the face of a total rebuild. The Tigers are among the worst teams in baseball, and the fire sale has already begun with the trade of J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Several other names have popped up in Tigers trade rumors, including reliever Justin Wilson, catcher Alex Avila and second baseman Ian Kinsler. But no discussions are as compelling as the ones swirling around longtime ace Justin Verlander.
In the last three weeks, Verlander's name has been tied to several teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees. All three teams could use a starting pitcher, but is Verlander the right fit?
The name Justin Verlander piques interest in even the most casual baseball fan because of his six All-Star appearances, two no-hitters, 2,317 strikeouts and Cy Young and MVP awards over 373 career starts.
But how much trade value does Verlander really hold?
This year's performance
On the surface
Coming off his best season since 2012, Verlander entered 2017 as one of the top starting pitchers in all of baseball. He piled up 254 strikeouts in 227.2 innings last year, allowing just 171 hits and 57 walks. He finished with a 3.04 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 16-9 record, for those of you who are into standard statistics.
Those same measures show Verlander has struggled much more this season. His 4.50 ERA rivals a career-worst 2014 campaign, and the most glaring issue is his walk rate. Verlander has already walked as many batters in 2017 (57) as he did in 34 starts last season, for an average of 4.14 walks per nine innings. In the previous eight seasons, Verlander's walk rate rarely sniffed 3.00.
Other than his sky-high walk rate, Verlander has been solid again this season, striking out nearly a batter per inning (120 strikeouts in 124 innings) and allowing less than one hit per inning (122 hits). His ground ball and strand rates are right on pace with his career averages, and his home run rate is consistent with last season, when he started pitching up in the zone more frequently.
One red flag on Verlander's resume is a greatly inflated hard contact rate. In his first 12 seasons, Verlander allowed hard contact on about 27 percent of batted balls. This season, batters are squaring him up 36.6 percent of the time, which has resulted in a .305 BABIP (batting average on balls in play).
Hitters throughout baseball are making more hard contact than ever as strikeouts and home runs become an increasingly popular trend, but it's safe to assume those numbers will come down in the second half for Verlander. When he allowed a career-high home run rate in 2016, Verlander still held batters under 30 percent hard contact and a .255 BABIP. If anything, he's due for some positive regression.
Perhaps the most positive sign for Verlander is his velocity, which is up across the board from last season and above his career averages. His average fastball, which hasn't touched 95 mph over the past four seasons, is up to 95.6 mph for the first time since his Cy Young and MVP season in 2011.
When Verlander was averaging at least 95 mph on his fastball from 2009-2012, he went to four straight All-Star games, finished top three in the Cy Young three times and complied 977 strikeouts, 17 complete games and a 1.08 WHIP in 953.2 innings.
The MVP version of Verlander is gone, but his underlying numbers suggest he can still be dominant.
Verlander's resume lacks the completely dominant starts that fans become accustomed to from 2009-2012, when he would throw multiple complete games and shut teams out over seven or more innings. But since the end of May, Verlander has only had two bad starts in his last 11 trips to the mound.
From Opening Day to May 25, Verlander made 10 starts and put up numbers almost identical to his season-long stats. He struck out 58 batters in 61 innings, posted a 1.41 WHIP and allowed a .745 OPS.
In the 11 starts since, Verlander has struck out 62 batters in 63 innings, posting a 1.48 WHIP and allowing a .729 OPS.
The difference between the two halves is consistency. In his first 10 starts, Verlander had four starts allowing at least four earned runs and two starts allowing no earned runs. In his most recent 11 starts, Verlander has allowed seven runs once, and three or fewer runs in the other 10 starts.
Second-half Verlander is an extremely attractive starting pitcher for teams like the Dodgers, Yankees and Rockies, who have elite offensive numbers and shut down relievers at the back of their bullpens.
If Verlander can go six or seven innings and allow two or three runs in Los Angeles or New York, it's going to be a win almost every time out.
When players with potential Hall of Fame pedigrees come up in trade discussions late in their careers, contract numbers are always part of the conversation.
For Verlander, his massive contract will be difficult to move if the Tigers aren't willing to open up the checkbook and meet teams halfway.
The 34-year-old is making $28 million this season and will make $28 million each of the next two seasons. That's a huge number, but it's not a bad value for the Tigers considering some of the comparable contracts for starting pitchers around baseball.
Note: Verlander's contract also includes a $22 million option for 2020 if he finishes in the top five in the 2019 Cy Young race. Obviously, if he's pitching at a level that triggers that vesting option, he'll be worth the money in both 2019 and 2020.
How it stacks up
Behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, who have been indisputably two of the best pitchers in the game over the last five years, Verlander falls into a group of pitchers who have similar contracts but haven't all performed up to expectations.
David Price ($30 million), Felix Hernandez ($26.8 million), C.C. Sabathia ($25 million), Johnny Cueto ($23.5 million), Cole Hamels ($22.5 million) and Masahiro Tanaka ($22 million) are all in Verlander's pay range and have dealt with injuries and shaky performance throughout the season.
In the next tier, James Shields ($21 million), Jeff Samardzija ($19.8 million), Adam Wanwright ($19.5 million), Homer Bailey ($19 million), Jordan Zimmermann ($18 million) and Scott Kazmir ($17.6 million) are all performing well below expectations despite being among the top 20 starting pitchers in terms of annual salary.
What's the point? Verlander has a large contract, but that doesn't mean it's a bad contract. He was the best pitcher in the American League a year ago, and his stuff this year is about the same as it was then. If the Tigers are willing to pay a portion of the salary, they can send Verlander to a contender for about the same yearly pay as Bailey, Kazmir or even Anibal Sanchez ($16.8 million).
There are two very different types of teams reportedly interested in Verlander: teams that are in a playoff race and teams that have already turned their attention to October.
If teams like the Yankees, Rockies and Brewers were to acquire Verlander, they would do so in an attempt to improve their chances to get into the playoffs down the stretch. Meanwhile, the Dodgers and Astros have already locked up playoff spots, so their focus is on winning postseason series.
For the teams looking ahead to the playoffs, there's no better starting pitcher on the market than Verlander. In five trips to the postseason, Verlander has been one of the most dominant pitchers of his era, starting 16 games and leading the Tigers to six series victories.
Verlander wasn't always dominant in the playoffs, struggling as a rookie in 2006 and again during an ALCS run in 2011.
But in his most recent appearances, Verlander was close to a sure thing when the calendar turned to October. In 2012, he led the Tigers to an ALDS win over the Oakland Athletics with 16 one-run innings, striking out 22 batters and allowing just seven hits. He dominated the Yankees in the following series, going 8.1 innings and allowing just one run on three hits.
After struggling in his only World Series start, Verlander returned form in 2013, allowing just one run in 23 playoff innings while striking out 31 batters. The A's and Red Sox combined for just 10 hits and three walks in three games against Verlander.
Even when he struggled throughout the 2014 regular season, Verlander gave the Tigers a chance to win in the ALDS against the Orioles, allowing three runs on six hits in five innings before Joakim Soria and Joba Chamberlain coughed it up in the late innings.
Verlander has always been at his best in the most important situations, and that's exactly what contending teams will need.
The Cubs have already made a big move to add Jose Quintana to their starting rotation, and they sent two of their top prospects -- Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease -- to the White Sox to acquire him.
It's unlikely the Cubs would make a second move as big as trading for Verlander after already picking up Quintana, and if it happens, it's unlikely the Tigers would get as good a haul.
Theo Epstein has reportedly shown interest in Alex Avila, so it's worth noting the trade talks between the Tigers and Cubs likely haven't stalled entirely. But even with those lines of communication open, a Verlander trade to the Cubs would be surprising.
Veteran starters Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey have struggled this season, but since Verlander has also gone through his share of rough starts, Epstein probably won't want to give up a top prospect to swap one for another.
The Cubs are catching fire and have turned a five-game deficit into a 1.5-game lead in the NL Central Division, so their need to make a big deal is probably fading by the day.
Houston's interest in Verlander is surprising, not only because of its enormous 17-game lead in the AL West Division, but also the depth of its starting staff.
The Astros' pitching is so deep this season, they could consider moving Brad Peacock to the bullpen this month despite his 2.93 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 75 strikeouts in 55.1 innings across 11 starts. Ace Dallas Keuchel is set to return from injury Friday, and Collin McHugh just returned for his first game of the season.
Lance McCullers has run into a bit of a wall in July, but the youngster has struck out 114 batters over 100.2 innings this season, allowing just 92 hits and 46 earned runs.
Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton aren't going anywhere, either. They've each struck out more than a batter per inning this season and, along with McCullers, have given manager A.J. Hinch the most innings.
The Astros could easily use an upgrade over Joe Musgrove, but with four rotation spots locked down and Peacock and McHugh already on the roster, it doesn't make sense to make a huge move for Verlander.
New York Yankees
Right off the bat, Verlander's home run tendencies would be a problem in Yankee Stadium, which allows the most home runs in baseball and the fourth most runs overall.
Verlander allowed 30 home runs last season, when he made a concerted effort to use his fastball up in the zone more often in order to get strikeouts and set up his off-speed pitches. While that strategy nearly earned him a Cy Young award, he allowed the ninth-most homers in baseball, tied with Anibal Sanchez.
Other than the unfavorable park factors, Verlander would fill a major need for the Yankees. Their starting rotation has been weak at the bottom this season despite breakout seasons from Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery, and that's only going to get worse since the injury to Michael Pineda.
With Severino, Montgomery, a struggling Tanaka and a surprisingly serviceable Sabathia, the Yankees are still an arm short, and none of those pitchers would inspire great confidence in the postseason or a must-win wildcard game.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers seem like the best overall fit for Verlander, even though their starting rotation has been a strength this season.
When you talk about the Dodgers staff, the conversation begins with Kershaw. He's been stellar again this season, striking out 10.7 batters per nine innings to go with his elite 0.88 WHIP. Unfortunately for the star lefty, a back injury will sideline him for the next four to six weeks, and there's no guarantee he'll be 100 percent by the end of the season.
Without Kershaw, the rotation is in the hands of Alex Wood and Rich Hill, who have been simply dominant for most of the season. Hill is a constant injury concern, however, and is currently dealing with a respiratory ailment. At 37 years old, it's clear health issues are part of the package with Hill.
Wood has arguably been the second-best pitcher in baseball behind Kershaw this season, striking out more than 10.5 batters per nine innings and posting a 1.02 WHIP.
Why would the Dodgers need Verlander? On top of injuries to Kershaw and Hill, Brandon McCarthy is on the disabled list and Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu are the definition of inconsistency. They've both battled injuries and spent time in the bullpen as recently as this season.
Los Angeles is also the kind of market where Verlander could thrive with his competitive, big-game mentality. The Dodgers aren't afraid to spend what it takes to add pieces, either.
The Rockies are one of the most surprising teams in baseball this season, sitting at 58-45 and owners of the second wildcard position. But this feels like a situation in which Verlander might use his no-trade clause to block a move.
Colorado is the worst place to pitch on a yearly basis. The thin Denver air has produced the fourth-most home runs this season and the most overall runs each of the last six years. Would Verlander want to pitch in that environment, even if he gets to join a playoff race? It's hard to guess.
In terms of roster, Verlander would be a perfect fit in Colorado. The Rockies have had a surprisingly solid starting rotation this season, but the staff -- made up of Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Tyler Chatwood, Jon Gray, Jeff Hoffman and Antonio Senzatela -- has an average age of 24 years old. Tyler Chatwood is the veteran presence, at 27 years old.
Obviously, the youngsters would greatly benefit from the addition of a former Cy Young winner who has pitched in two World Series, 11 playoff series and a half-dozen pennant races.
The small market Brewers, who are quickly fading from the division race as losers in nine of 11 games, seem like another candidate for Verlander's no-trade clause.
Milwaukee has shown it's not afraid to make big-market moves at times like these in the past, most notably in 2010 when it acquired Zack Greinke in a winter blockbuster.
Since Chase Anderson's untimely injury before the All-Star break, Jimmy Nelson has been the only reliable starting pitcher in the Brewers rotation. They could definitely use a player like Verlander, but the money would be an even bigger roadblock in this potential deal than any of the other partners.
Other starters on market
It's impossible to assess a player's total value without examining the other available players at the same position. In Verlander's case, there aren't many other high-end starting pitchers in major trade discussions.
Quintana was the first domino to fall, and he brought back a huge return for the loaded White Sox farm system. Verlander is looked at differently due to his age, but he should be a (more expensive) option with about the same performance level over the next 2 1/2 years.
The only pitcher on the market who's just as firmly established an ace as Verlander, Darvish should bring back a nice package for the Rangers, who could contend sooner than the Tigers with their current roster.
While he hasn't pitched a full season since 2013, Darvish returned to ace status this season, striking out more than a batter per inning and posting a 1.17 WHIP. He's four years younger than Verlander and is set to be a free agent at the end of the season.
Gray is also coming off an injury-shortened season, but he's just 27 years old and under team control through 2019. He's arbitration eligible this offseason, but he won't make anywhere close to the money promised to Verlander.
Gray's numbers are better than Verlander's this season, especially in terms of walks. He's not as well established as the other three names in this section, but he has a history of being elite before his injury, and he would land a bigger return than Verlander due to his age, salary and team control.
The Tigers don't necessarily have to trade Verlander this month, as they can go through the same process the next two seasons with fewer years left on his contract. There are certainly factors limiting Verlander's value, especially his salary and his performance up to this point in the season.
Still, the Tigers can't give Verlander away. He's one of the best pitchers in franchise history and has plenty left in the tank, so if the Tigers are willing to pay some of his salary, Al Avila can make a deal that will help the organization move forward.
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